A noose of sorts is already tightening around the diesel engine's neck. None of them is clean enough to comply with 2004-model-year emissions standards applicable in California and four Northeast states (Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont). Come 2007, similar standards become the law of the land for the remaining forty-five states where you can currently purchase a VW or Mercedes-Benz diesel-powered automobile. The hope is that low-sulfur diesel fuel that's mandatory beginning in 2006 and advanced emissions control technology-especially particulate traps and urea injection-might save the day. Beyond the added cost of these new emissions controls, there is some concern that cleaner diesels won't be as fuel-efficient as today's oil burners.
Still, today's Jetta makes a fine package. Its engine, 1896 cc of iron- blocked, aluminum-headed modern diesel combustion, exhibits momentary start-up clatter but settles down with each degree of engine temperature until it reaches a pleasant simmer. Performance is blunted by a conventional, Tiptronic five-speed automatic, but its 0-to-60-mph time of 11.7 seconds wouldn't have seemed slow for any car not too long ago, and, back when, it would have counted as rocket-ship-fast for a diesel.
Once under way, the TDI rolls the Jetta and its occupants down the road in comfort and reasonable silence, its 100 horsepower made infinitely more bearable by 177 pound-feet of torque available at an easily accessed 1800 rpm. Smoke, odor, and related diesel foulness are things of the past. Cruising at 90 mph, if one goes in for such things, is an option for the present. The Americanized Jetta's handling is not the last word in crisp, but the car is planted, unlike the Prius, which gets blown around in the wind. When full panic braking is called for, the Jetta pulls up in 172 feet from 70 mph, 20 feet less than the Prius, which feels jerky and slightly odd when binders are applied, and narrow-tread tires have their work cut out for them stopping 2960-plus pounds of payload.
Although you wouldn't want to make much of it, the Jetta is the more sporting drive of this pair. And compared with most, its environmental credentials are pretty good. With both green machines running together in city traffic, we measured 34 mpg in the Jetta and increased that mileage by 9 mpg on the highway, so you're a much smaller part of the problem than you used to be, even if you're not the solution. Like the Prius, the diesel Jetta makes you feel virtuous. Personally, I'm fine with its low-key public persona, but it may matter to you that hardly anyone knows you're giving it up to save the baby seals when you drive by. A handsome but ordinary-looking and much-seen Volkswagen sedan, built in Mexico and now in its last year of production, it doesn't stand out.
Only one of our test cars looked as if it were sent last week from outer space (actually, it comes from Toyota City, near Nagoya in Japan), and only one can take epochal, brand-making advantage of the general public's dim-to-nonexistent understanding of hybrid technology. "Where do you plug it in?" is a question you'll learn to hate as a Prius driver. (Polite answer: "You don't plug it in. The 1.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine and regenerative braking system recharge the battery pack.") Simple and straightforward it might be for you to understand, but for the tedious many, the technological talk is a bridge too far. After repeated explanatory misfires, you want to tell them, in no uncertain terms, where to go plug it in. They don't understand. But we feel quite certain that the Prius defines the automotive new wave for Americans, nevertheless. "Is it a robot?" someone asked. "That's the robot, right?'
"Why, yes, it is," we told them. "Stand back."